The Master & the Ballerina

Born in Istanbul in 1935 to a sculptor father, the gifted Dimitar Kirov was painting by the age of seven. Still working and living today in Plovdiv’s old town, with Rosalia, his wife of 44 years – and one of modern Bulgaria’s greatest ballerinas – Dimitar may well be the spirit of old Plovdiv personified. This living master of Bulgarian painting and mosaic art considers himself the last of an era, after the passing a few years ago of his best friend and fellow painter, Giorgi Bozhilov, nicknamed Slon (‘the Elephant’).

A very rare photo of the author with the late Dimitar Kirov and Rosalia Kirov at their house-museum in Old Plovdiv, 8 September 2007

With a faint smile peeking out of his beard, and kindly eyes set behind thick glasses, the laconic artist bedecked in a fedora hat and puffing on a cigar is truly a larger-than-life personality from another era. As he recalls the things that inspired him to create, his comments are animated by interjections from slender Rosalia, whose delicate beauty is still obvious, and who, though retired, still moves with the unmistakable half-steps of the ballerina.

The Kirovs have wonderful stories of the Bolshoi Theatre (where Rosalia was dancing when they decided to marry), of travelling the world with the Plovdiv Opera and of participating in the bohemian abstract art scene in Paris in the 1960s. Still, it was Plovdiv that initially inspired Dimitar and it was Plovdiv that called him back. When Parisian gallery owners, recognising the young painter’s talent, asked him to stay, he told them no: ‘I wanted to live in my country,’ says Dimitar, ‘and I’m still very proud of my decision to stay here.’

What inspires Dimitar most about Plovdiv? ‘This city has 8000 years of culture,’ he says, using a barely relateable Bulgarian idiom, ‘and this beats me in the ankle.’ What he means to say is that the city uplifts him: ‘Old Plovdiv is a place you take energy from- it itself is my inspiration.’

Rosalia features prominently in his paintings. For her birthday in 2007, the painter threw his wife a party – an entire exhibition of portraits of her, displayed in the garden of the Atanas Krastev House gallery.

The couple’s spacious home in the heart of Old Plovdiv is probably the greatest museum you’ll never see. Closed to the public, it displays hundreds of paintings and mosaics by the phenomenally prolific artist, clustered, jumbled and hung everywhere, in a riotous outburst of colour- bedrooms, living rooms and even a basement crypt are all filled to bursting with art, and not only Kirov’s; works by other Bulgarian Masters, such as the great Vladimir Dimitrov – who also happened to be Rosalia’s uncle – abound, and there are even works by Salvador Dali, whose portrait Dimitar sketched in Paris.

Dimitar himself, puffing on his Cuban amidst the wonderful mayhem of his art, is remarkably placid. He lets his wife do the talking.

‘Before he was in a darker mood,’ she says with her wonderfully warm smile. ‘But now he’s very happy, and everything’s a celebration.’

You can see the works of Dimitar Kirov at art galleries around Plovdiv. And even buy them at the Atanas Krastev House/Red Pony Art Gallery (Map p. 142; tel. 625 792; Dr. Chomakov 5a; admission 1lv; open 10am-6pm Mar-Nov)


-Text by Chris Deliso. Published in Lonely Planet Bulgaria, 2008.